There is a Zen story about a young, impulsive warrior who made it his ambition to depose the legendary Master of the village. Making his threats and challenge public, a large crowd gathered outside the Master’s meager home to witness the contest. As the young man arrived with a cheering, jeering entourage, the old Master stepped outside with only a staff in his hand.
Immediately the young warrior began his assault, but skillfully, every blow, kick, and punch was deflected by the Master. Yet, he never struck back, not making a single offensive move. Frustrated by this, the young warrior resorted to nastiness by throwing rocks, spitting in the Master’s face, shrieking insults, and cursing. After hours of this, the young warrior gave up and left.
The Master’s students hurried to him: “Why did you allow him to insult you without consequence? How could you not retaliate?” they asked. The Master asked in turn, “If someone offers you a gift, but you refuse to accept it, then to whom does that gift belong?”
One of the students answered, “The one who tried to offer it.” The Master smiled. “Yes,” he said. “And it is the same for anger, curses, and insults. If you refuse to accept these, they must be carried away by the one who tried to burden you with them in the first place.”
As much as we would all love for the holidays to be filled with nothing but love, joy, peace, and hope, we know that is rarely the case. And having celebrated more than a few family Christmases now, I’ve learned that not every gift offered during this “season of giving” should be opened.
Yes, members of your family will treat you like a dog’s chew toy, pulling you in every direction. Money will be tight, and not everyone will get exactly what they want. Expectations, as high as that star atop the decorated tree, will be impossible to meet. There will be cranky kids, rude shoppers, delayed airplanes, and punchy in-laws ready to gouge your sore spots: ’Tis the season.
There is someone, however, who can save you from turning into a notorious Scrooge: You, and only you. You alone are responsible for your actions and reactions. No one else, neither the Devil nor your mother-in-law, can “make you do” anything.
Those around the holiday dinner table may push your buttons. Your obnoxious Uncle Charlie might attempt to rouse from you a snarky response. Your nog-loaded neighbor might overstay his visit to your Yule log. But only you can control your response.
This being the case, remember the words of the Master. Refuse to accept or react to the spiteful “gifts” offered by others, leaving these to be carried away by the would-be givers. For when you know you don’t want what someone has to offer, it’s perfectly acceptable to leave her or her gift unopened. This will do more than save your Christmas. It might save your sanity.